A reflection on the enigma of consciousness, or something.
Death is nothing like I had imagined; nothing in the least like my expectations. Altogether, a bit of a surprise: a revelation, you might say. So, if anyone tells you they know what’s coming, don’t you believe a word of it!
My consciousness, which -- I now realize -- had for some time been ebbing away, almost imperceptibly, now simply evaporated. One minute, there I was; and the next? There I wasn’t! As simple as that. I wasn’t afraid of death, you understand; I just didn’t want to be there when it happened. (That’s one nice thing about being dead: you don’t get sued for plagiarism.)
So, what is it like? I know you’re dying to know. (Sorry, but that’s what passes for a joke here in the hereafter.) Well, truth to tell, it’s a bit ordinary: like being stuck in traffic on a rainy Monday morning in February when you’re late for work: intensely frustrating and boring at the same time. Know the feeling?
Search as I might, I could see no bright light at the end of the tunnel; no choirs of angels plucking on lyres serenading me as I approached the pearly gates. No pearly gates, in fact. Whoever really believed there would be? I mean, come on! Life after death? It’s pretty much like life before birth. Remember that, do you? No, I thought not. But oblivion’s not so bad, really, once you get used to it. I like to think of it as the other ‘Big O’. It’s the only possible way to get through eternity; trust me.
Back when I was still alive, my main concern was what the food was going to be like. I know that sounds petty, but as I aged food had become more and more interesting, and it was hard to break the habit of looking forward to the next meal. Well, there wasn’t much else, was there? In my younger days, I’d worried more about the sex: would there be any? Would I get my share? Would I enjoy it? Would I still be able to...? Well, you know. But as I got older, that concern -- so compelling in my youth -- had simply wilted. Funny, that.
There was no one to ask, of course; and anyway, once your consciousness is gone, that’s pretty much it as far as meaningful communication is concerned. Game over. If I’d had a memory, I might have remembered that wonderful song by Phil Ochs: ‘When I’m Gone.’ If you don’t know it, do yourself a favor, while you still can.
Know what I miss the most? The complexity of it all. Curious, really, considering how much that got up my nose while I was still alive. Oh, how I had longed for things to be simpler! Be careful what you wish for, I guess. Complexity and meaning: that’s the heart of the matter. Now, don’t get me wrong; I never figured out the meaning of life any more than the next person, and once you’re dead it certainly doesn’t get any clearer, believe me. But I can assure you that compared with death, life is full of meaning; simply bursting with the stuff... whatever it is. I miss that.
Death is just so damn stupid, you know? Same old same old, from now to eternity. You think life seems pointless sometimes? Just wait till you try a bit of death! ‘Thank goodness for oblivion’ is what I say. Where would we be without it?
All my life, I’d known exactly how I was going to die... or so I’d thought. I’d be driving down this two-lane road somewhere -- dark trees on both sides, slightly menacing -- and there, coming towards me in the other lane, I’d see this white painter’s truck with a ladder strapped to the roof.
Was there perhaps a bump in the road? Or maybe the driver swerved to avoid something. I would never know exactly how it happened, but at that precise moment, one of the bungee cords holding the ladder to the roof rack -- having been stretched a little too far a little too often -- decided to give up the ghost and take me with it. Couldn’t it have held on for another five seconds? Two would have been enough. But no.
I’d seen it so often in my imagination: the ladder flying towards the windshield, targeting my frontal lobe like a heat-seeking missile. There’d be this split second when I realized there was no way out, and then...? No longer driving down the road; embarked instead on an eternity of oblivion.
I was so sure of my imagined destiny that what actually happened came as a huge surprise; a double surprise, in fact, if you’re keeping count. You see, I was driving down this two-lane road -- dark trees on both sides, slightly menacing -- when suddenly, out of nowhere, this kid runs out in front of the car, chasing a soccer ball. It’s a healthy sport, by and large, soccer; not too many injuries unless you get into the professionals, or get hit by a car.
To this day, I don’t know how I avoided him. Reflexes I didn’t know I had took over and brought the car to a swerving screeching stop. So far, so good. But guess what? Right behind me there was this white painter’s truck with a ladder strapped to the roof. The bungee cords didn’t stand a chance.
Talk about being blindsided! Have you ever been hit on the back of your head by a flying ladder? No? Me neither. I don’t know how it missed me, but it did. Made a right mess of the dashboard though, as it ploughed through into the engine compartment leaving me unscathed... physically, at least. I never drove again.
I actually died on a Saturday, some years later. It had been an altogether bad day, right from the start. All my life I’d hated Saturdays -- nasty, schizophrenic days -- and now I know why: one of them was lying in wait for me. I awoke to find myself out of sorts and coffee, had a row with my wife -- only to remember, belatedly, that she had been dead for three years -- and then dropped my dentures down the garbage disposal. After that, death came as a bit of a relief.
And mine was an easy death, as deaths go. A lot easier than the one I’d imagined. Just this piercing pain from out of nowhere skewering my left temple, and then...?
“Stroke,” said a cute paramedic, bending over me.
‘As in caress?’ I wondered, hopefully, as I lay on the stretcher. ‘This might not be so bad after all.’ But no.
My heart gave one final, half-hearted little squeeze that pushed my reluctant corpuscles a few measly and unnecessary centimeters further down my clogged arteries; I sucked in one last breath and slowly began to turn blue.
Dead on arrival, apparently. I was in no fit state to argue.
I remember thinking: ‘That’s it? There must be more to death than this!’ But no, not really.
“What about your footprints in the sands of time?” you ask. (That’s your plagiarism, not mine.) Well, my genetic legacy, such as it was -- that alphabet soup which, for a while, had spelled ‘me’ -- was destined to fade like the Cheshire Cat, diluted generation after generation until it was no longer recognizable, even by those who might have cared.
And my atoms, what of them? I had high hopes for some: a couple of carbons in particular that had served me well. I watched with interest as each one penetrated the future in pursuit of its own destiny, its unique trajectory across eternity; but neither of them amounted to much.
In spite of that, I’d like to think that they were altered in some way -- ennobled, perhaps? -- by the time we’d spent together; that the singular experience of being a part of me had somehow rubbed off on them. But it hadn’t, of course.